In the past week, Fox News executives could only stand by and watch as a wave of advertisers pulled out of Bill O’Reilly’s blockbuster prime-time show.
Behind the big-money exodus were a loose band of part-time activists, who decided to piggyback on a New York Times report of sexual harassment allegations against O’Reilly and mount a campaign to strip away the cable news titan’s ad sponsorships.
The day the campaign began, “The O’Reilly Factor” was interrupted by upwards of 30 commercials. By Monday night, that number had been halved. Gone, too, were most big-name brands, leaving ads for life insurance, a company that lets you cash out your life insurance, a pillow whose creator is trying to sever ties with the show and an ear wax removal system.
O’Reilly continues to face a massive backlash over the Times report, published April 1. Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, said Sunday it has hired a law firm to investigate the claims against O’Reilly.
The Times report revealed that 21st Century Fox and O’Reilly have paid about $13 million in settlements to five of his former female colleagues in exchange for their silence, or for keeping their accusations out of court. Two other women have accused him of inappropriate behavior, including one who has an open case against the network. O’Reilly denied the allegations in a statement last week.
O’Reilly has weathered controversy in the past, and some of the allegations in the Times story had been previously reported. But this time, advertisers responded. By the week’s end, more than 70 companies had pulled ads from O’Reilly’s program or said they planned to, including earlier holdouts.
Angie’s List said midweek that it wasn’t dropping the show, but abruptly reversed its stance Friday night. Comcast kept quiet for most of the week, but a spokesman said Sunday that the company has “taken steps to ensure that our advertising does not run during ‘The O’Reilly Factor.’”
Companies that waited to pull ads likely saw a stream of tweets from users asking them to #DropOReilly, thanks in part to groups like Sleeping Giants.
The loosely organized group of volunteers was formed after the November presidential election to get companies to stop advertising on Breitbart News, which publishes white nationalist content. The group’s goal was to “defund bigotry.”
They and their 80,000 followers look at Breitbart daily, taking screenshots of ads and tweeting them to advertisers with a request to stop advertising on the site. Sleeping Giants says hundreds of those companies have since agreed to drop Breitbart.
The Sleeping Giants organizers keep their names anonymous so that their activism doesn’t interfere with their marketing jobs, a co-founder told The Huffington Post.
At first, they hesitated getting involved with Fox News, which would dilute their focus on Breitbart. But after “more and more outcry” from followers, they began tracking and targeting “The O’Reilly Factor” advertisers in earnest ― practically a second full-time job, the Sleeping Giants co-founder said.
“We did a little bit of soul-searching ourselves,” he said. “We really started as an anti-bigotry campaign, but ultimately, misogyny has always been part of what we’re fighting against. It made a lot of sense. We just didn’t know if we had the bandwidth to pull it off.”
Sleeping Giants creates graphics about O’Reilly’s controversy and encourages followers to tweet them at advertisers. The tactic is intended to be a polite sting ― far milder than shaming or a boycott threat. The group follows up with positive reinforcement, publicly thanking companies that stop advertising.
Angelo Carusone, president of liberal nonprofit Media Matters, calls out companies from the Twitter account @stoporeilly and tracks “The O’Reilly Factor” ads on the Media Matters site. In 2009, he led a similar social media campaign in Twitter’s early days that got hundreds of advertisers to drop former Fox News host Glenn Beck. Another campaign aimed at conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Carusone takes a more aggressive stance than Sleeping Giants, warning companies to steer clear of O’Reilly if they want to keep their reputations intact.
“Advertisers that stay with O’Reilly will need to explain to their customers and to their employees why the company is comfortable associating their brand with serial sexual harassment,” Carusone wrote.
Organizers for the Women’s March pushed a social media campaign as well. Rather than targeting advertisers individually, they used the #DropOReilly hashtag in an outpouring of tweets aimed to show companies how sexual harassment affects women.
Companies have so far been more responsive to the O’Reilly campaign than to Carusone’s lobbying against Beck’s advertisers. He told Politico it took a month before an advertiser pulled out of Beck’s show. Beck left Fox News two years later.
As brands back away from O’Reilly, Fox News has said little beyond affirming that it values advertisers and is working to address concerns. The network didn’t respond to questions about how the show has been affected by the ad loss, or why the number of ads airing during “The O’Reilly Factor” declined over the week.
There’s no indication that O’Reilly’s job is in jeopardy. “The O’Reilly Factor” is usually the top-rated cable news show on any given night, and its ratings actually increased last week.
“The O’Reilly Factor” advertisers are being directed to other Fox News shows. And even if the backlash continues, “The O’Reilly Factor” has value to the network beyond ads. A Hollywood Reporter column pointed out that O’Reilly’s popularity with viewers helps Fox charge cable providers top dollar.
The Times suggested the advertiser loss could end up being “more symbolic than financial.” The Sleeping Giants representative acknowledged this was a possibility, but said he believes “the noise surrounding it is going to grow.”
“Fox should take responsibility for this,” he added. “If anyone outside of their top-level staff was sexually harassing someone at work, they wouldn’t think twice about tossing them out of the building. We just think it’s hypocritical.”